January 20, 2009
Please accept my sincere thanks for sharing your interest in the latest Geoffrey Bell Auction; an event which reflects over forty-five years of my involvement in numismatics.
A cursory glance at the catalogue will possibly suggest to you that my love for the hobby spans the broad range of usual categories: ancients to medieval to the modern era’s pieces; tokens, medals, paper currency, and more. The true specialist might well conclude that what I present to you, however, is simply too eclectic. Such an objection is admissible. And if, in fact, I had sought items relevant to a single typology or theme, the end result would probably be a collection showing greater coherence, rarity, and market value. But my intent was never economic. Nor was it to amass an array of what is precious. Rather, since the age of twelve I intuited that the world’s monetary systems portray life; life with its multi-facets; life with its fluctuations and tensions, with its joys and ideals; life imbued by political, social, and religious dynamics. To hold a coin or note in one’s hands means that we touch an enduring symbol of what humanity values and even fears. Numismatics, then ought never to be reduced to mere mechanisms of commercial exchange. Because numismatics is less about commodities than about the nature of those relationships which define and express our evolving identity.
Friends, my personal experiences, together with my professional goals and vocational philosophy, exude from this catalogue’s pages. Obviously, there are too many stories to recount which correspond to individual pieces. But be assured that each definitely has a story to tell. As you browse, and hopefully, as you bid, you will recognize that my own history now entwines with yours. And a hobby which has enabled me wonderful satisfaction during these past decades may be encouraged by the donation of monies realized to the Ferguson Foundation. For I believe that it is vital to support successive generations of numismatic scholars and enthusiasts.
Enjoy and stir your imagination. Picture, for example, a young man of 17 whose parents told him that his Honda motorcycle worried them and to sell it. A compromise was reached. “I agree if I can spend the money to buy what I want.” I did and purchased the 1902 $4 Canadian bill. Next, while attending St. Francis Xavier University (1969-73), I sought medals commemorating Apollo XI’s moon mission. And as a summer guide at the Bell Museum (Baddeck, NS), I acquired the College medals awarded to Alexander Graham Bell’s famed associate in aviation, Casey Baldwin, in addition to a Shooting Medal which belonged to Baldwin’s grandfather (Walker). These are real Canadiana, every bit as much as the French Regime Card Money or the War of 1812 Army bill, the 1382 Nova Scotia “error” token or the 1921 Five Cents and Half Dollar.
The saga continued. During seminary years in Ottawa (1973-77), I became fascinated by the tokens of Thomas Church, who had once submitted coin designs to Sir John A. MacDonald. Travel became a delight. At an antique book dealer’s shop in Connecticut, I located a Colonial note from New Hampshire used to pay soldiers who laid siege in 1745 to Cape Breton’s Fortress Louisbourg, along with others bearing the signatures of signers of the Declaration of Independence (e.g. New Jersey’s John Hart and Connecticut’s Oliver Woolcott).
When ordained to the Catholic priesthood (1977), gifts helped me to acquire the ‘X.F.’ sample of the Pine Tree Shilling and the $25 bill commemorating the Coronation Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary.
There is also the element of adventure. As a doctoral candidate in Rome (1981-1986), throughout the holiday period of 1985 I taught for a Polish seminary. Nobody knew that I smuggled out of Poznan an ‘underground’ medal in tribute to Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and a counter-stamped Polish note in protest to the country’s Soviet-backed Communist domination. These were sewn in clothes to avoid risk of a stiff prison sentence. Later, following Law School, I taught Political Science (e.g. International Relations) at Eastern Michigan University (1994-2004). How better to Illustrate lessons on the abuse of human rights than to display medals promoting Hitler situated next to currency forced upon concentration camp victims and a ‘resistance’ coin which had once circulated in the Netherlands (notice the crude ‘W’ for Wilhelmina, the Queen in exile). The Nazis punished attempts to pass the latter by execution.
Since 2004, I am serving in the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches (with responsibility for India). You will find a variety of Vatican Euro sets and superbly artistic Papal medals. Yet what you cannot see is my fervent desire that our mutual hobby will long inspire your confidence in the marvel of mankind’s creativity and resilience.
Rev. Dr. Bernard J. O’Connor (aka Fr. Bernie)